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Flu Vaccine: Same Strains As Last Year, But You Still Need One

If you frequent the supermarket, you may have noticed that some shelves in the candy aisle are already laden with bags of Halloween candy. "Are you kidding me?" My Facebook friends are demanding. "In August??!"

The sign outside the supermarket in the bright late-summer sun struck me as similarly premature: "Flu shots today." But in fact, yes, though flu doesn't tend to really take off until mid-winter, this year's doses are in, and it's not too early to roll up your sleeve. Another sign of the season: A press release today saying CVS is offering flu shots at all its pharmacies, too.

I'd heard that the strains of virus in this year's vaccine were the same as in last year's, so I was kind of hoping those of us who got vaccinated last year might get a pass, but no such luck: the CDC says we need boosters. Here's Dr. Carolyn Bridges, a CDC immunization expert, at a briefing last week:

I want to emphasize that the recommendation for annual vaccination remains in place, even though the strains of this year’s vaccine are the same as those in 2010-11. Annual vaccination is recommended, including people who were vaccinated last year. Because levels of protective antibodies against influenza viruses decline over the course of the year, particularly in elderly and people with compromised immune systems, and other people who may be susceptible to complications of flu. So even people that got a flu vaccine last year should get vaccinated again this year to ensure that they are optimally protected.

The CDC recommends that almost everyone over 6 months of age be vaccinated against flu. (Details are here.) It says that last year, about 49% of American children and 41% of adults did get their flu vaccines.

For some schoolchildren, this could be a multi-jab year. Here are this year's updated school vaccination requirements for Massachusetts, courtesy of the Department of Public Health:

More details on the school requirements are here. The main changes in the new schedule in brief:
-You need two doses of MMR vaccine and two doses of varicella vaccine for entry to kindergarten, 7th grade and freshman year of full-time college.
-You need one dose of the Tdap vaccine for entry to 7th grade and freshman year of full-time college.
-Health-science students need all of the above as well.

In other vaccine news, the MetroWest Daily News reported here this weekend that the strapped state will be supplying fewer vaccines this year than last to needy patients.

Faced with a money crunch, the state has cut in half the number of adult flu shots provided to shelters, community clinics and health boards, which coupled with restrictions on other vaccines, has left patients scrambling to find alternatives.

The possible consequences:

"Our biggest concern is that vaccine may become less accessible to the most vulnerable members of our society," said Jennifer Manley, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Public Health. "The worst-case scenario is that we will experience an outbreak of a vaccine-preventable disease."

This program aired on August 22, 2011. The audio for this program is not available.

Carey Goldberg Twitter Editor, CommonHealth
Carey Goldberg is the editor of WBUR's CommonHealth blog.

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